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Why do girls engage in those terrible friendship wars?

Girls' friendships are passionate, but they are also painful

Mothers of daughters often dread the advent of the friendship wars. "Uh oh, here it is," they often think as they see their daughter come home crying from school for the first time because another girl called her "a name". Most mothers don't want to remember the pain of those years, and if they do, they certainly want to protect their daughters from what they suffered; so they try to minimize it for their daughter. "So what?" they may say. "What do you care what she says? Don't let it bother you." Yet mothers find themselves often quite helpless in this situation it's one of the first signs that they cannot control the world for their growing daughters. "Should I call that horrible girl's mother?" they ask themselves. They would love to protect their child from the exclusion of being the one girl who is not invited to the popular girls' party. And they may ask, "What do I do if my daughter chooses girls who I think are undermining her confidence?" And, "Why is my strong-minded daughter so influenced by her friends?"

Why is it girls' friendships that are so often troubled that teachers and school counsellors note that much of their non academic work with adolescent girls is about friendship struggles dilemmas that they also feel perplexed about how to handle. "Girls are in my office all day complaining about each other," said one middle school principal. "One day one's feelings are hurt. The next day it's another. I wish I knew how to make this easier for them." A school counsellor remarked, "The girls aren't violent as often as boys, but they take their fights more personally, and argue more, and come to us constantly about their problems with other girls. It's really hard to help them."

Well, what I say about girls' and women's friendships may also be true of many male friendships: certainly, in the early years, for both boys and girls, play with other kids is a major social enterprise. But friendship is clearly experienced - and performed - differently for girls and for boys. By the age of four, girls and boys segregate themselves when they play with peers and when they form friendships. Girls choose girls; boys choose boys. If boys try to join a group of girls, they usually mean to cause trouble. If a girl tries to join a group of boys, she is very likely to be rejected. This segregation seems to be universal - across culture and class, and occurs - especially in a school context, even when the adults try to mix the children. Boys and girls like playing with different things, and they also have very different play styles, and distinctive cultures emerge in all-girls groups and in all-boy groups. Boys are more "physical" in their play that girls, and engage in a good deal of roughhousing. They form more obvious, and more stable, hierarchies, and engage more directly in competition with one another (fifty per cent of the play time, versus one per cent of girls' play time). Girls sustain long, turn-taking conversations more often than boys. More often than boys, girls express agreement with a friend's suggestions. When they make suggestions of their own, they often add a tag question (shall we? should we?) Boys are more likely to use direct imperatives: ` give me, put it there', or prohibitions: `don't do that', `get away from that'.

Conflict in girls' groups can also go unnoticed because it is usually indirect: the competition is for the more nebulous good of popularity (not, as in boys' games who can throw furthest, who's the strongest); but who is best liked, who's most likeable, or popular, or who is closer to the girl whom everyone likes. The chief commodity in the girls' community is intimacy. Girls monitor their friendships for subtle shifts in alliances, and they seek to be friends with popular girls. Popularity is a kind of status, but it also brings problems. Popular girls were often disliked because they can be envied, they can be the target of gossip, and they can be considered stuck up. Because the most important thing in girls' friendship is intimacy, they cannot have masses of friends, and so a popular girl, who attracts lots of other girls, must reject some of those girls in order to preserve the intimacy in the relationships she has. This makes her seem to others stuck up.

Popularity is dangerous, too, because it is transient. Girls' hierarchies are much less stable than those of boys', and so girls' are acutely aware of subtle nuances of inclusion and exclusion. Girls' emphasis on closeness and intimacy and understanding - does not always lead to nice and thoughtful behaviour. Such concern about intimacy arouses envy and anxiety. Alienating tactics - excluding someone from play, and spreading negative gossip about a girl, increase sharply with age, and such tactics are almost never mentioned by boys. This buried conflict causes girls' enormous pain - yet friendships are too important to give up, just because they often hurt. Learning to negotiate the pitfalls of friendship begins to seem the core of existence to the growing girl: the potential for rejection, alongside the dependence, makes friendships both powerful and dangerous - but few girls, or women, would give them up: many say, "I don't know who I'd be without my friends."

Terri Apter and Ruthellen Josselson are the authors of Best Friends: the pleasures and perils of girls' and women's friendships.

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